The first time I met Saeeda Khatoon was at a general body meeting of the Ali Enterprises Factory Fire Affectees Association at the PMA House, the Pakistan Medical Association’s office, in Karachi in 2014.
I was a rookie journalist. After her speech, I was intrigued and the desk needed quotes so I approached her. She was extremely busy. Everyone wanted to speak to her and she was very familiar with all of them.
She seemed to be the most prominent leader among the affected families. They called her Saeeda Baj. I asked her to interview me and she gladly agreed. Her house was located on Baldia Town’s hillside. It was reached via a long, dusty and broken road. The house had one room and contained an iron cupboard, sewing machine, a table, water cooler, a floor mat, and a picture showing a young curly-haired man.
He was just 18 years old when he was among 260 other victims of the fire at Ali Enterprises’ garment factory in Baldia town a few years back. He was named Aijaz by his mother, but he was nicknamed Ayan.
After returning from work, he would knock on the door to ask for food. They used to eat together every single day. She didn’t feel like cooking anymore after he was gone. She survived long on tea and biscuits from the kiosk.
Since then, I have been following her. Her leadership was pivotal in the formation of the German Supply Chain Due Diligence Act. This law is now being reviewed at European level.
Saeeda Baji’s story
It was her son’s payday. As she was about to finish her dinner, she received a phone call stating that the factory had caught on fire and that many people were trapped in it. Within minutes of arriving at the factory, she saw flames coming out of the windows and people screaming for help.
She continued running from one ambulance after another and from one medical facility to the other. The dead body of her Ayan was found in the factory’s basement on the second day of the fire that was still raging.
After losing her husband just a few short years, she had also lost her son. The mother and son duo found themselves in poverty after they tried to pool their resources to make ends meet. She was a caretaker at school, but it wasn’t enough to cover the expenses. The compensation that the government promised to give the victims’ families was her only hope of survival. She ran from pillar-to-post in search of the compensation, but came back empty-handed.
She knew of an NGO that could aid victims. They demanded Rs30,000 per family from her to help her file the case. The NGO was eventually vanished after she and others paid it. Some people began to blame her.
She was aware that not everyone wanted to help them, but she was more interested in making a profit from their misery. So, she decided to take matters into her own hands. Her colleagues and she set up an association to help the families affected. They were helped by lawyers, politicians, and union organizers. The Sindh High Court (SHC) provided some relief in the form of compensation.
The SHC money helped her purchase a small house, and she was also able to get pocket money as a pension for a few more years. She was not convinced. She was determined to find justice. This was not the case.
She wanted to prevent others from suffering a fate similar to hers. This was a constant theme in her speeches, talks, and press conferences. And each time, I noticed her shaking voice and her eyes becoming teary.
She realized that her fight had many fronts and included many opponents. These were from states to firms, politics to economics and society to religion. Some social and political forces threatened her with abandoning her fight. Undoubtedly, these elements were jealous of her and wanted to hijack the victims’ movement. She did not seem to be affected.
She represented victims on many levels, including before Pakistani and German governments, as well as the European Union and the United Nations. Because of her and her colleagues’ struggle, the victims received some more compensation.
However, it was under corrupt circumstances due to the poor social institutions and poor governing policies. But she desired more. Maybe she wanted more.
The German brand KiK purchased clothes from Ali Enterprises and refused to accept responsibility. Citing an investigation report from Pakistani law enforcement, security agencies, that the fire was arson, she filed a civil case against the brand in Germany as well as a criminal lawsuit against the factory owners in Pakistan.
She claimed that people were killed because they couldn’t find an exit. This meant that no safety and health measures had been taken in the factory.
Her case was finally heard in Germany in late 2018. Her lawyers offered her the chance to speak during proceedings. The judge refused to give her a chance and began pronouncing its verdict.
The German language was used for the order. Although she didn’t know the language, her facial expressions indicated that she knew it. She was upset that day. She preferred to be alone than converse.
Saeeda Biji was an amazing person, and I had the honor of meeting her on several occasions. She was always present at demonstrations for women, labour and human rights. She would always find me, or vice versa, and we would then catch up.
Sometimes, she could sound depressed and hopeless as she faced hurdles after hurdle. Despite all odds, she persevered. She knew people looked up to and respected her. She understood the pain of each affected family, and tried to fix it.
One of her last efforts was a change in pension rules, which prohibited payments to the victims’ parents for a specified time. She was thrilled to learn that Germany had passed legislation that required German companies to take due diligence in rectifying human rights violations and environmental violations along their supply chains.
She spoke at a book launch held by the IBA (Institute of Business Administration), in 2021 about the implications of this law for her. After she finished her speech, Justice Maqbool Baqar (then Supreme Court) rose from his chair to applaud her.
Over the years, I only noticed these changes in her: she changed to burqa dupatta, her hair went from black to silver, and her skin became wrinkled. Her ninth anniversary of the factory fire was the last time she saw me. She appeared a little weak. She said that she wasn’t well and that doctors were working to determine why.
I found out that she had been diagnosed as having cancer in November 2022. I was tempted to give her a call. A few days ago, I came across a Facebook post that said she was being admitted to hospital for treatment. I remember that I needed her to call me, but then I forgot.
On December 29, 2022, I got a text from her confirming that she had died. I was reminded again that I had to call her. But it was too late. Now I wouldn’t be able speak to her again. Saeeda Baj, Rest in Peace. The writer is a former journalist associated with The News